IT’s a brave man who actively seeks to change his breed type in the competitive world of Blackface sheep breeding, but with ewe lamb sales to £820, shearling rams to £6500 and tup lambs to £14,000, there is no doubting this Northumberland-based enthusiast’s keen eye for the job.

With three distinct types within the Blackface Sheep breed – although many would argue there are several more –Paul Coulson’s switch from the North of England-type to the south or Lanark-type over the past six years, has been a hot topic of debate for many.

However, Paul, his wife Kirsty and their young family of Robyn (4) and Rhona (1) along with Paul’s parents’ Robbie and Margaret, who still help on the farm at High Staward, Langley, Hexham, remain confident they have made the right decision for the future.

“I’ve always been interested in the south-type Blackie because they there are so many more of them, with so many more sales, and there is a great following for them,” said Paul

“South-type Blackies are totally different sheep appearance-wise to the North of England, as they have so much more style and character and yet they are just as good mothers, producing similar lambing percentages.”

While Paul, who makes all the decision making on this 900-acre unit, has never had anything against the North of England type, he believes the future of south-type is brighter long-term.

“There will always be a place for the Blackie as there are so many areas that are unable to run anything else other than Blackface sheep. Blackies are female breeders and by switching to the south-type we aim to concentrate on breeding the best females possible to produce quality tups and females for pure-bred breeding.

“North of England females produce really good Mules, but there is no real market for pure-bred females, whereas there is a huge demand for top quality south-type Blackface females and tups,” said Paul.

Although new to the type, he does have distinct views on what kind of sheep he wants to breed too.

“I’m looking to produce distinct, hardy sheep with style and character, but they also have to have size, power and a leg in each corner. I’m looking to breed wild, hardy sheep that are great mothers with plenty of milk.”

Up until 2012, High Staward was home to 750 North of England Blackface sheep, from which ewe lambs and shearling rams would be sold at the breed sales at Hexham every year.

Now however, there are some 550 south-type Blackies, most of which originate from just a handful of bought in females from Hugh and Alan Blackwood’s Auldhouseburn flock from Muirkirk.

“It’s not easy getting the numbers of top end females that we were looking for, so we just went out to buy the best and flushed them every year,” said Paul, who over the years has gone to £1800 for ewe hoggs; £4500 for gimmers and 5800gns for ewes ¬– all from Auldhouseburn.

Last year, the team also bought 175 gimmers and earlier this year, forked out 11,000gns to buy the top priced in-lamb ewe at the breed sale at Lanark, again from the Blackwoods.

“It is all about the females and most people keep their best, so with Auldhouseburn selling a few of their tops every year we thought, that would be the best and easiest way of building up a flock of quality females,” said Paul.

Initially, six females were flushed, but such has been the success of these breeding programmes and the quality of females bought as foundation stock that some 20+ are now flushed every year, with each one producing on average eight to 10 embryos.

“Last year we got 180 embryos to put into some of our remaining North of England-type Blackie ewes used as recipients and 70% of them held but we don’t use frozen embryos or frozen semen.”

It might be a costly operation, but the family believe it is a lot cheaper than buying in large numbers of ewe lambs, gimmers and ewes.

Paul added: “Most people keep their best females, so you would never be able to get the quality you were looking for, and you would never get the uniformity if you were buying from several flocks.”

Outwith the ET work, which is all done through Dan Fawcett Sheepbreeding Services, the team also AI a good number of the ewes to top end rams.

Last year, 150 were AI’d, and such was its success, the plan is to do some 320 plus this year, with the remainder tupped naturally, to stock tups and home-bred tup lambs.

Like the females, the Coulsons have always looked to invest in top in stock rams too, having purchased a £50,000 Crossflatt in partnership with Auldhouseburn and a £36,000 Auldhouseburn with Crossflatt. Last year, they also acquired a share of the £45,000 Loughash lamb and bought the £30,000 Dalchirla tup lamb sold at Dalmally.

Farming at 1000-1200ft above sea-level with the vast majority of this owned unit comprising severe rough grazing and rashes, is not the easiest, and it was worse this year than ever with snow lying for most of February, March and into April.

Such was the intense windchill from the Beast from the East, that several of the Blackie ewes suffered frostbite on their ears. However, despite the horrendous weather, the boys didn’t lose any.

“All the ewes are run together as one, until scanning when they are then split up according to the number of lambs they are carrying and an 18% protein ewe roll is introduced along with Crystalyx blocks.

“We do lamb the AI and ET ewes inside with help from Jimmy Story, who helps out at busy times, but we still had 350 ewes lambing outside when The Beast from the East arrived and we didn’t lose any despite the 15ft snow drifts in places,” said Paul.

“Our south-type Blackies have great tight, short, weather-proof coats and they seem to hold their condition well, so we had a good lambing in spite of the weather,” said Paul adding that all concentrate feeding stopped at the end of May this year.

While the family has been farming High Staward for more than 80 years, and has made some huge improvements to the unit during this time, selenium and cobalt deficiency remains a problem, with the result that all sheep are bolused twice a year – at speaning and scanning. It has made a huge difference too as there are now fewer barren ewes every year and lambing percentages have increased by 10% to 170%

Cows and calves were also bolused which improved calf vigour at birth, but these have since been sold to allow the family to concentrate on their new venture – seven five-star luxury holiday cottages, featuring the historic artefacts from the traditional farm steading at High Staward.

The project, which is costing a whopping £1.6m, is being developed to attract the growing number of tourists that come to the area where there is already a real shortage of accommodation.

“Tourism is massive in this area. We’re close to the Lake District, the North-east coast and only a few miles away from Hadrian’s Wall, so it is popular tourist area. We also neighbour a big shooting estate, so by constructing these cottages, we hope to secure the future of the farm for our two daughters and son who is on the way in the New Year. Nothing is guaranteed in farming and by the looks of things, basic payments are going to disappear,” said Paul.

He does nevertheless have this year’s tup sales to look forward to first, which in previous years have produced several high four-figured priced rams, and more importantly, tups that are doing well for breeders. The £6500 High Staward shearling bred sons to £42,000 and £11,000, for the Campbells at Glenrath and Easter Happrew, respectively, while the £14,000 High Staward lamb bred last year’s £45,000 Loughash lamb.

Needless to say, there will be a few sleepless nights to come between now and this year’s sales, and more so when the team is looking to sell at more markets.

This year, the plan is to sell lambs and shearlings at Stirling and Lanark, and ram lambs at Dalmally and Fort William.

And, with female numbers almost up to full stock, Paul hopes to have gimmers for sale next year too.